An ode to improv comedy

And I got to interview the legend: Keith Johnstone

Improv comedy classes make for a funny family holiday in London

When my brother’s family and I decide to go to London together for two weeks, things threaten to quickly spiral out of control. Like most families, we have little in common in terms of interest. So we make a rule: each member of the entourage will be allowed to choose one activity. Everyone else has to participate, whether they like it or not.

There’s eight of us: my brother’s family and mine; four teenagers and four adults. My niece, 17, chose to visit St Paul’s Cathedral. We struggle up hundreds of steps to the Whispering Gallery, then walk up some more for fantastic views of London from the rotunda on top of the cathedral.

My husband, a political junkie, wants to visit the Houses of Parliament; which, all of us agree, turns out to be a great experience. The audio tour leads us through the House of Lords and the House of Commons. We learn about kings and commoners; pomp and circumstance; and how laws are drawn up.

My brother, an erstwhile sailor, chooses to visit the National Maritime Museum; the rest of us go along for the ride. It’s interesting to observe sailing routes and ships through his eyes. It teaches us about Britain’s maritime ­history, but also reveals an aspect of my brother’s life that none of us knew.

My younger daughter, 14, wants to visit Stratford-upon-­Avon, since her class was studying Shakespeare. As the town is 160 kilometres away from London, it takes a day and results in us quibbling about how long each chosen activity could be.

My nephew, 15, the only boy amid three girls, wants to cap each activity at two hours, so he can get back to his beloved ­videogames. Instead of choosing an activity, he asks for a veto. He wants to reduce the number of activities; stay home, watch cricket on TV and play with his PlayStation 3. His request is ­denied by the adults. He chooses Hyde Park under duress, but says he doesn’t really care if we go or not.

My elder daughter, fresh from a brutal first year in engineering school in the United States, just wants to sleep. Also under duress, she chooses kayaking on the Thames, but we couldn’t fulfil this obligation – it rains on the day we schedule this activity. So we go to Harrods and Topshop, which is fine with the girls.

My sister-in-law wants to visit Wimbledon, where her ­family had lived for some years. It’s fun to take a trip down memory lane, visit their flat, now rented by South Africans, and wander in and out of the shops.

I choose comedy improvisational classes. Like it or not, I decide, we’re going to return from our holiday with the ability to make people laugh; or at least ourselves laugh. We’re going to be a funny family.

When you think of improvisational comedy, two locations come to mind: Chicago, where the famous Second City theatre troupe and teaching programme is based; and London, where Keith Johnstone, the father of improvisation and author of the seminal book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, began his career. Johnstone is still a legend in London, even though he now lives in Canada. Every improv teacher I encounter talks about him and wear lessons from him as a badge of honour. “Keith invented improvisational comedy as we know it,” says Jules Munns, our first teacher.

London is full of institutions offering drop-in classes – from singing to storytelling; dancing to DJing; improvisational comedy to acting lessons. My situation is complicated by the fact that we’re a group; and not all of us are passionate about improv. Dragging the whole gang to lessons all over London is simply unfeasible. I need a teacher who can come to us. To my surprise, I find several institutions that offer private lessons in improvisational comedy. Not all of them fit into my budget and I end up zoning in on two: The Nursery and City Academy.

Munns is the artistic director of The Nursery (www.thenurserytheatre.com), a nurturing environment where all kinds of funky classes, including the Feldenkrais Method, are taught. Its website is worth visiting. It has interesting podcasts and interviews with professionals, including Patti Stiles, another legend in this field.

I cold-email Munns asking if he will take a private class for us. He agrees because he thinks it’s “cool” to teach a large extended family. Munns typically charges £75-100 (Dh428-571) per hour for private lessons, but being his first “family” clients, gives us a discount.

We arrive at The Nursery on a cold, wet London morning. Situated near London Bridge on a busy street, this establishment hosts improvisation classes every week; and drop-in classes three times a week. Anyone with a passing interest in improv can take a class, pretty much at the last minute, if they’re passing through London.

We’re in a medium-size room with chairs. Another class is ­taking place in the next room, ­although most sessions happen at 7pm.

Like most comedians, Munns is preternaturally observant. Within minutes of arrival, he notices my gangly nephew likes to lean against the wall as a way of distracting attention from his height; that the girls don’t make eye contact; that I easily feel cold. We stand in a circle to ostensibly introduce ourselves, except with a twist. We have to point to a person and say our name instead of their name. Simple as it sounds, it’s difficult for the mind to process. After warming us up, Munns introduces us to one of the core ­concepts of improv: the “yes, and…” Along the way, he passes along life lessons and wisdom. Improv is somewhat like Buddhism, he says. You accept things as they come to you and build upon it; rather than rejecting what someone says.

This works in life as well as in corporate settings. When a colleague offers a suggestion, the natural inclination – one that we’re all trained to do through years of schooling where we’re taught to think critically – is to view each suggestion with scepticism. This critical eye can impinge on creativity – unless you’re a Picasso or Mozart. Improv, we discover, is all about silencing the voices in our head that tell us to view each environment with wariness. Instead, we’re forced to jump joyfully into each situation and celebrate it.

We’re paired into random couples. The instruction is simple: we each have to say something. No matter how nonsensical it sounds, the other person has to begin their sentence with: “Yes, and…” And build on it. After a few iterations, we loosen up enough to make up narratives that are silly and fantastic. One goes like this:

“Let us go to the mall today.”

“Yes, and let us buy the entire building.”

“Yes, and let us transport the building to Zimbabwe.”

“Yes, and let us buy some rhinos along the way.”

Munns tells us to “commit” to the statement; to say it with conviction. We try to stay in character, but all of us are laughing along the way. Munns wraps up each exercise by saying “scene” – theatre shorthand for “let’s close the scene”.

We try variations of this exercise. One is that we should speak only questions. Each person’s statement has to be a question; and each response has to be a question as well. Another variation is “yes, but…”, in which each response has to start with that phrase. We learn that questioning each other or doubting each other with a “yes, but…” makes the conversation fall apart within a few minutes. There’s no humour in that model. We end the lesson with improvisational sketches that each pair took part in while the rest watched. After each sketch, Munns offers us encouraging and instructional feedback.

This pattern continues with Kate Smurthwaite, our next teacher. A slim, smiling woman, Smurthwaite is an instructor at City Academy (www.city-academy.com), which offers a veritable feast of classes besides improv, including singing, dancing, writing and filmmaking, at a variety of locations. It offers short courses, as well as private lessons for groups. Charges vary depending on the instructor and location. Drop-ins are allowed with prior consent.

Smurthwaite is a bit of a celebrity in London, both for her comedy acts and political activism. She was on the panel at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and gives talks on improvisation at senior citizen centres, prisons and ­colleges.

In rapid succession, Smurthwaite runs us through a series of games. We stand in a circle and tell a story. Each person is allowed one word. This is both liberating and constraining, because each of us want the story to progress in a certain way, except the person next to us takes it in a whole new direction. Improvisation, I begin to understand, is all about giving up control. You can’t control the narrative; you have to build it together by staying loose and paying attention.

The more advanced lessons involve theatrical sketches. My favourite is called Interview. Two of us sit on a couch, while the rest act as interviewers. We’re “experts” on crazy, silly things, such as panda football or inkblot paintings. The two experts have to answer questions using the same format of a word per person. Smurthwaite begins proceedings.

“We want to welcome the two professors, who are experts in sunflower genocide, on the show,” she says. “Why do you think sunflowers are used for genocide, as opposed to other flowers?”

Off we go, the two of us sitting on the couch. “Sunflowers… are… flowers… with… yellow… petals… that… are… poisonous.”

A similar game is called Translator. Two people sit on the couch and speak a nonsensical language. Others interview them. The pair are experts on an esoteric subject such as Frankincense architecture or desert art. The expert answers in passionate mumbo-jumbo. The translator gives a spin to the answer. Each of us play a part in building humour: we try to ask crazy questions; the expert uses the limited mumbo-jumbo resources open to them by using their body in a more expressive way – to control the message and get their point across; the translator effectively sabotages the expert’s message by making it their own, translating it into whatever they want. By the end of the afternoon, we’re confident, curious, loose and full of laughter. Smurthwaite and I share a drink after, and she’s generous with her advice about how to attempt stand-up. “Try to pair opposites together,” she says.

When I return to Bangalore, I’m so inspired by the pleasures of improv that I call Keith Johnstone. He has retired to Canada. I find his email on his website (www.keithjohnstone.com) and write to him. A few emails later, I enjoy a Skype call with the legend. I’m tongue-tied at first; then describe my nascent interest in improv and ask him how I can jump-start it. Is there any advice he can give readers about how to become better at improv?

“Start with the fear,” says Johnstone. “You have to find situations where you are not afraid to go on stage – to warm yourself up. If you are trying to be funny, you will be afraid. You should go on stage not to be funny but to form relationships with the other performers. And, I suppose, the audience. If you walk on stage trying to be your best, you will fail. I think you should walk on stage trying to be average; then you will learn quicker.”

In other words, don’t be a perfectionist; don’t aim for the stars; don’t try to be funny. Instead, be yourself, be average and address your fears.

weekend@thenational.ae

Tiger’s Trail

 So every writer aspires to be a photographer or at least I do.  Here are the photos I took at Kanha and Pench.  You have to be patient and refresh the page many times.

On a tiger trail in India

I’m sitting on the deck outside my tent, which perches high above the Banjaar River in central India. Across the river lies Kanha National Park, which at 1,945 square kilometres is one of India’s largest. White egrets pick their way across the bank searching for fish. A male langur cries from within the jungle to establish territoriality. I smile happily. I have spent countless summers trekking and tenting within national parks in four continents. I love the herbal scents in the air; the swaying rustle of leaves; the gurgle of the river. Most of all, I love the spiffy luxury of my tent, so far removed from digging a hole in the ground and using broad teak leaves as toilet paper.

There are 48 recognised tribes in Madhya Pradesh, including Gonds, Bhils, Bastars, Baigas and Ojhas. They live in pockets all over the state, making beautiful sculptures and foraging for medicinal plants. Banjaar Tola’s spaces are enlivened by whimsical metal sculptures created by the local Bastar tribal people. The brass door handles, hanging hooks and water tumblers have tribal faces etched on them. Bottles containing saffron and turmeric conditioner and body wash have metal cork-like closures ­displaying women with geometric faces and coiled hair. In the middle of my bedroom sits a sculpture of a woman with a telescope turned to the sky. As well she might, because the night sky is glorious, revealing a cross section of the Milky Way and a whole array of constellations. I pick at the lemony salad with home-grown lettuce, bite into ­coriander-and-yogurt infused kebabs and sigh in satisfaction. I haven’t been on my first drive into the jungle. In fact, I’ve barely ­arrived.

The human vision of wildlife is romantic and often forgets how inaccessible wildlife is, and should be. Reaching a national park in any continent requires hours of travel by pretty much every mode of transport. So it is with Kanha National Park in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. The word “madhya” literally means centre in Hindi.

Getting to Kanha involves flying to Mumbai; then to Nagpur; and then driving five hours into the jungle (if you have time, Bhopal is a beautiful city to visit on the same trip). This long journey forces Type A travellers such as myself into resigned ­acceptance of a slower rhythm; something of a stupor really. By the time I arrive at Banjaar Tola, I am ready for anything, or rather, nothing.

Wildlife tourism reached a luxury tipping point in India nearly 10 years ago when high-end global players such as the Aman group and Africa’s &Beyond entered the country. In 2006, &Beyond partnered with the Taj group of hotels to establish Taj Safaris, a joint venture with jungle lodges in four national parks in Central India: Pench, Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Panna. The lodges are designed by &Beyond and operated by Taj. The service is warm. The beds are firm. The rangers are superbly trained, the staff attentive but not obsequious. The architecture is rustic and in keeping with the forest – choosing wild flowers rather than manicured lawns. The food is Indian but plated well with grilled meats, dals, birianis and curries, all served with your choice of drinks. Rooms are decorated with local tribal objects but are rustic in sensibility. There is no television, no internet, and barely any phone reception. And really, it’s rather silly to sit in a jungle and poke someone on Facebook. The library has both television and a computer with an internet ­connection.

Of the four, Bandhavgarh National Park is touted to have a high density of tigers, which translates into “guaranteed” ­tiger sightings. I choose Kanha and later, Pench – inspired by a BBC documentary, Spy in the Wild, on the tigers of Pench. Narrated by David Attenborough, the superb film uses hidden cameras shaped like tree trunks, that are carried by elephants and placed right beside the tigers, offering unparalleled access into the daily, mating and maternal life of this magnificent animal: Panthera tigris tigris.

Kanha has about 95 tigers in its whole area, but the 300 square kilometres that are open for tourism house barely 10. The 10 four-wheel drives that enter the forest at dawn are chasing these tigers. Of course, we don’t say that. Tiger sightings are rare and cannot be created or conjured up, even by luxury tour operators. Of India’s 27 tiger preserves, I have visited about 15 over the last dozen years. I have seen the tiger in the wild only once: in Ranthambore. I have been to Kanha before and spent days without a tiger sighting. So I don’t dare hope for ­anything. Still, there is no getting away from the elephant in this particular room: we have all come to Kanha to see the tiger.

The forest in Kanha is dense and moist. Dew drips from the tall sal trees. Sunlight filters through. Mist rises from the grasslands, which are coloured white, pink and purple. Sheet spiders create their webs horizontally like sheets at the bottom of trees, waiting in funnel-like homes to catch the unsuspecting insect that falls down. Brilliant yellow orioles fly across trees, glinting like the sun.

As we drive in, we see Kanha’s biggest success story: the barasingha or swamp deer. In 1970, their count dropped to a precipitous 66 animals because of infection, habitat loss and over-killing by ­tigers. Park officials cordoned off grasslands and researched the population decline. Of the 25 species of grass available at Kanha, the swamp deer picks at only seven types. Thirty years of conservation later, the count stands at a respectable 450. “The swamp deer and not the tiger is the true hero of this park because you can see the barasingha only in Kanha and it came back from near extinction,” says my naturalist, Dipu from Kerala.

We don’t see a tiger during my time in Kanha. We do see jackals, jungle fowl and other animals; and really, they ought to be enough. But I can’t help feeling disappointed as I drive to Pench, three hours away. Baghvan Lodge in Pench has wooden huts that are raised a little off the ground. The indoor and outdoor showers are nice, but I preferred the old-fashioned bathtub with brass fittings at Banjaar Tola. The best part of Baghvan’s rooms is the machan, a tree house that comes with every room. In the afternoon, I take my laptop there and read, type and doze. All around are trees filled with birds whose cries and screams remind me of home.

Tigers have been part of India’s ecosystem and lore for centuries. Tiger images are seen on Bronze Age seals. The pharaohs and Romans are said to have imported Indian tigers for gladiatorial sport. Indian maharajas hunted the tigers nearly to extinction. In 1972, then prime minister Indira Gandhi started Project Tiger to protect and preserve the Bengal tiger. The project is viewed as a success. The latest tiger census shows a count of about 1,500 tigers across 27 tiger preserves in India. Today, tourists come to India’s parks mainly to see this top predator that cannot be seen in any other continent. Three subspecies – Javan, Caspian, and Balinese – are already extinct; and only a few hundred of the Siberian and Sumatran sub-species exist. Hence the pressure on the Bengal tiger – to save it and to sight it.

Planning early is essential ­because getting into the park involves getting permission from the forest department. I take a few days to send in my identification card and as a result, am not able to go into Pench on the first morning’s drive. The bookings are full. That happens to be the day of a glorious tiger ­sighting: a tigress and her three cubs. Wolfgang, a German, regales me with photos of the tigress walking, sitting and even pooping. I show him the photos of birds that I took on a walk. I know that sounds lame but the birds were gorgeous.

I spend two days in Pench, following the typical safari lodge routine: forest drives in the morning and the evening with time in the afternoon to nap, read, swim, or in my case, exercise using the “jungle gym” left in the room: a yoga mat, weights and skipping rope, mostly to prepare for the evening’s labours: dinner. With me at the camp are Belgians, Germans, Americans and British tourists. They compare vegetation across continents: the ­Indian jungle scores in the dense foliage area.

Why does man seek the jungle? Most of us go for a change from city life, to see the tiger if possible and return refreshed. Being amid ancient trees is invigorating. Pench contains sal, teak, banyan, frankincense, Indian gooseberry, wood apple and mahua trees, all of which come together to form sacred groves that rejuvenate passers-by. The sounds of a jungle are distinct in what they do not offer: no wailing ambulances or annoying horns; no shouting and cursing drivers; no shrieking brakes. Instead, it’s the flutter of dragonflies, the chatter of parakeets and the barking call of the deer. You see creatures big and small and each of them links you back to your genetic ancestry in a way that textbooks never can. If you are lucky, as I wasn’t even on Day 3, you will see a tiger.

weekend@thenational.ae

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Wildlife Taj Safaris

My father knows William Blake’s verses by heart.  Maybe I should memorize it too.

Click here for story in India Today – Travel Plus – Taj Safaris

TIGER, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies          5
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

Sri Lanka

If there is a takeaway from the below piece, consider this.  Watch Mani Ratnam’s movie, Kannathil Muthamittal (She kissed my cheek).  Read Romesh Gunasekhara’s (spelling?) books.

Sri Lanka: fantasy island

There are some places that seem familiar even though you haven’t actually visited them. Paris is like that for Europeans and Sri Lanka is like that for me. Thanks to myth, movies, politics, geographical proximity, and a shared language, Sri Lanka was part of my mindset while growing up in Chennai in the 80s.

Lanka-puri was the golden land described in the Hindu epic, Ramayana, where the demon Ravana spirited away princess Sita. An army of monkeys built a stone bridge, waged a war, and rescued the princess. Some Hindus, my relatives amongst them, believe that the bridge still exists, submerged under the ocean. I can’t help looking for it from my winged chariot— Flight UL 122—but the water is as gray as a turtle’s back.

There was the Eelam depicted in the phenomenal 2002 Tamil movie, “Kannathil Muthamittal,” in which an Indian couple adopts a girl whose biological mother is a Tamil Tiger: a terrorist group. The family sets out to find the birth mother leading to a climactic scene where the mother chooses between her biological daughter and staying with her secessionist cause.

IMG_3565 IMG_3617 IMG_3555

A lush, tropical island shaped like a teardrop in the sea of time, this is a land of many musical names: Serendib, Taprobane, Ceylon, Eelam, and finally, the official Sri Lanka. Smaller than Tasmania, Sri Lanka is both fertile and prosperous. It’s per capita of $6531 is higher than neighboring India’s $4077. The flash of its gems, blue sapphire and moonstone are as well known as the flush of its teas. Also known are its internal conflicts. For 25 years since Black July 1983, Sri Lanka was caught in a civil war that took an estimated 100,000 lives. Since 2009, the country has been coming back to normalcy and tourism is on the verge of taking off.

Locals are optimistic. “Things have changed in the last five years,” says France-educated diplomat, Saroja Siresena. “While retaining old world values, we have modernized. Compared to Bangkok or Mumbai, our cities are liveable and cosmopolitan. Nobody stares at you if you dress differently.”

+++++

I am taking two children– my daughter, 12 and nephew, 13—on a trip to a land that I ‘know’ but have never visited. This is their first visit too; one that is unclouded by history and known only through cricket players like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardane, both of whom are partners in the popular Ministry of Crab restaurant. Its celebrity chef, Dharshan Munidasa, plans to open Kaemasutra, serving contemporary Sri Lankan cuisine in July (Kaema means food in Sinhalese). “We all grew up with the war. We didn’t know a different life,” he says when we visit him. “Now that we have peace, I worry less about sending my child to school. I take more risks.”

The trick with travelling with kids is to keep moving. This we do after checking into the aptly named Taj Samudra (meaning sea in Sanskrit), scarfing down the complimentary chocolates and a pasta-lunch.

Colombo, everyone says, is a business city, known for shopping but not much else. The kids have lists from friends back home and are quite chuffed about shopping. I take them to the Gangaramaya Buddhist temple instead. I want them to engage with a clean slate– unpolluted by Sri Lanka’s politics and bloody history, but I am not sure how to engineer it. We hire a hotel car. Our driver, Hussein shows us layers of Sri Lanka’s colonial history: the Dutch hospital; Cargill’s, an English department store, now leased by an Indian bank; Portuguese outcrops and the mosque where he worships along the way. He accompanies us into the temple, pointing out the Buddha’s mudras or hand gestures that depict various moods. He explains the murals on the ceiling. I grin at the serendipity of having a Muslim explaining Buddhism to us Hindus. This, I think, is the magic of Sri Lanka. We stand before an ancient Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa) and fold our hands. Finally, we go to the museum inside the temple: a kitschy assortment of watches, swords, combs, jewellery, and seemingly everything that the temple has received as a gift.

We visit a few other religious sites during our stay in Colombo: the Seema Malaka Buddhist temple, designed by acclaimed architect, Geoffrey Bawa; the Dutch-style St. Antony’s church; and the colorful Hindu temple across the street. The children like the Gangaramaya temple best, mostly because there is a lifelike elephant that they can hug, and a Buddha image painted in such a way that the eyes move to stare at you wherever you go. We spend a giddy ten minutes trying to escape Buddha’s eyes but to no avail. The golden Buddha’s eyes resolutely stare at us. We can run but we cannot hide.

Temples should always be alternated with chocolate. We go to Paradise Road café for coffee and a nut-filled chocolate cake. The well-proportioned space used to be Geoffrey Bawa’s office and is now where Colombo’s swish-set comes for sundowners or lunch. I eye the paintings by Sri Lankan artists along the walls; the children read Sumitha Publishers’ illustrated children’s books that retell Sinhalese myths in English. “The Great Flood and the Gourd,” is one title. Opposite is a store called Rithihi, which to my surprise, has a colourful selection of silk saris from all across India. We end the day with a swim at the hotel. Counterintuitive as it seems for a tropical country, Taj Samudra’s heated pool is heavenly and removes all the knots from my shoulders.

Breakfast is the usual sumptuous spread. I choose red string-hoppers with the famous trio of sambal powders: pol sambol which is mostly coconut, seeni sambol made of carmelized onions and katta sambol made of ground red chilies. I douse the fiery powders with a stew made of coconut milk. The children stick to pancakes and eggs. Where’s your sense of adventure, I chide. That was before my eyes start watering.

On day 2, we hire a tuk-tuk and go to Barefoot Gallery and Café (for me) where I buy a colorful cotton dresses; and A&M cupcakes across the street (for them); to Saskia Fernando Gallery (for me) and to Odel department store where they buy yellow sandals, muffins decorated with Spongebob icing; string necklaces and souvenirs. As the sun climbs, we duck into The National Museum and wander through 5th century Buddha images. The children protest at the sameness of the century-old statues, but are engaged by accounts of prehistoric Sri Lanka beginning with Balagoda Man. Wall plaques neatly describe how Prince Vijaya journeyed through the seas from North India in the 3rd century; married a local princess and founded Sri Lanka as it were. On the way back, we spot a procession of protesting monks, who want the freedom to pursue Buddhist education. So says Hussein, even though I don’t understand why ordained monks who have presumably had a Buddhist education would have that particular demand. Discontent, it seems, simmers under the island’s placid façade. Even though Buddhism is the majority religion, Sri Lankans are warriors by nature, says a veteran journalist who didn’t want to be named. “Look at their names. Simha means lion and Raja means kings.   This is a country with robust warrior-names.”

The next day goes by in a blur. I try to keep it action-packed and fast-paced. We ride tuk-tuks, chatting with the English-speaking locals. We go in and out of temples, “just for you,” as the kids say. We eat rice and curry like the locals. We try out the spare but charming local trains, less crowded than in India. We go to Pettah market and haggle for umbrellas. Soon it is time to go to Bentota, our next stop.

The best way to go from Colombo to Bentota and further down to Galle is by the train, which hugs the ocean all the way. Not having the foresight or knowledge to buy train tickets, we arrive at the Taj’s sister property, Vivanta by Taj by car.

The pleasures of Bentota are more rural. There are turtle hatcheries where Leatherback, Green, Loggerhead, Hawksbill, and Olive Ridley turtles are rescued and rehabilitated. Funded by donors, these hatcheries buy turtle eggs from fishermen, hatch them and release them back to sea, where they can mate and hopefully thrive. The children get to carry a 10 kg green turtle, which can live for 300 years, according to owner Amarasena Fernando of the Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery. In the evening, we join a boisterous game of cricket in the hotel’s grounds, followed by a swim in the sea under the watchful gaze of a lifeguard.

On Day 4, we drive to Galle, stopping at a mask factory and a moonstone mine along the way. The wares may be real but the ethos reek of tourist traps. Our boat ride through the mangroves is better. It costs Rs. 5000 (Sri Lankan Rupees) for two hours on the water. We spot giant squirrels, three monitor lizards swimming after prey and spend half an hour at a fish farm dipping our feet into a tank and enjoying the nip of hundreds of fish. We hold a baby crocodile, sea snake, and tap some river crabs. We walk through cinnamon trees on an island, where an elderly man shows us how to smell and cut fragrant cinnamon bark. It is 2 PM when we reach Galle. I am eager to explore Galle Fort, but the children want none of it. A bribe of limp French Fries at Rampart View Guest House (our driver insists on taking us there perhaps because drivers get free lunch) buys me some time to buy locally crocheted lace on Galle’s streets. It would have been charming were it not for the blazing heat.

The best is saved for our last day. We visit Sri Sunshine Divers, owned by a strapping windsurfing champion, Thusal Gunawardhane, who lavishes praise on current President Mahinda Rajyapaksha (named after Emperor Ashoka’s son, Mahinda, who brought Buddhism from India to Sri Lanka). We scream through a banana boat ride; and take waterskiing lessons—much harder than I thought.

After lunching on Sri Lankan wild mango curry and red rice, we leave for the airport. The children discuss high points (waterskiing, turtles, snakes, fish, crocodile) and low points (temples, museums, more temples). “But what about the war that everyone keeps talking about?” asks my 12-year-old daughter. “It’s like this,” replies her cousin. “The Tamils wanted a separate state from the Sinhalese. They kept fighting for years and finally the Sinhalese defeated the Tamils.” Seeing my raised eyebrows, he adds, “I read it in my history book.”

That’s all it is to them young ones: history.

END

Fact Box:

Etihaad flies everyday from Abu Dhabi to Colombo. Fares range from AED 720 to 830 outbound. AED 745 upwards inbound.

Taj Samudra in Colombo overlooks the beach and has the best no-frills hotel pool on the island. The hotel organizes day-trips to Kandy and the Pinnawala elephant orphanage. Doubles from AED 640 including taxes. www.tajhotels.com

Vivanta by Taj Bentota is halfway between Galle and Colombo, making it a central access point to the Northern part of the island. Doubles from AED 890 including taxes. http://www.vivantabytaj.com/bentota-sri-lanka/overview.html

Madras to Mumbai

I was conflicted about writing this, because I don’t think people should define themselves so narrowly.  In terms of the “land they sprung from.”  But I cannot deny the fact that such an identity exists.  So I wrote it.  Tried to keep it light.

The psychology of a Matunga Tamil

I grew up in Bombay,” says Gayatri, one half of the Carnatic singing sister duo of Ranjani-Gayatri. “Actually, you should say that I grew up in Matunga, which in many ways is like growing up in an agraharam (an enclave beside a temple, usually occupied by Brahmin priests and their families).”

What is it about Matunga and Chembur that makes these areas a thriving home for south Indian culture?

The sisters grew up in a housing society that was surrounded by four temples. The fabled Sri Shanmukhananda hall was down the hall, figuratively speaking. During Margazhi—15 December-15 January—while the rest of Bombay (now Mumbai) drank bed-tea, Matunga’s citizens would congregate on the streets. Women with dripping wet hair would wait outside housing societies to watch bare-bodied men walking down the street, singing bhajans, clinking kartals (called kinnaram in the south), beating dholaks and tambourines in time to their shaking bellies. “We would circle these mamas (uncles), do namaskaram (prostrate before them) and go in for our morning coffee,” says Gayatri.

Matunga in the 1970s was entirely south Indian. The girls wore long skirts, called pavadai, their oiled, braided hair adorned with flowers. “When I came for college to Chennai, my classmates couldn’t believe that I grew up in Bombay,” says Gayatri. “I told them that Matunga was different.”

Matunga holds a special place in the imagination of south Indians, because it is the land where our relatives went to make their fortune. They left villages with long, syllable-laden names and returned as posh Bombayites. Suryanarayanan became Suri; Ananthapadmanabhan became Padi; Balasubramanian became Balan; and their daughters became Raji Suri, Priya Padi and Vidya Balan. These early south Indians who migrated to Bombay didn’t forget their roots. Rather, they fulfilled their love and longing for their ancestral homeland by duplicating its ecosystem in their new home.

At the Matunga market, women would bargain vigorously in Tamil. “Not just any Tamil but Palakkad Tamil,” says Gayatri. “Pumpkins were referred to as ellevan (white) or mathan (yellow) pushnikai, instead of the traditional way of calling them vellai or manjal pushnikai.”

Among Tamil-Brahmins, Palakkad Iyers form a unique subset. These were people who could trace their roots to the Palakkad pass between Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Palakkad Iyers, or Pattars as they were called, migrated from Tamil Nadu to Kerala, and felt equally at home speaking Malayalam and Tamil. My father is one, and although he spent his career in Madras (now Chennai), he still multiplies in Malayalam. Palakkad Tamil liberally interspersed with Malayalam is pretty much unrecognizable to locals in Chennai.

Each of us has many layers; many personas. There is the global self that is at home in Cuba, Iceland or Japan. There is a world citizen who skiis in Zermatt, Switzerland, scuba-dives in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia, shops in Rue St Honore, Paris, catches a Broadway show in New York, learns tango in Argentina, and drinks sauvignon blanc in New Zealand. Certainly, if you are a reader of this newspaper, you do all these things and more.

Then there is the local self that has to do with family, history, stories and myth. The local self is why we define ourselves as Syrian Christians, Surtis, Bohra Muslims, Parsis, Kamma Naidus, Kulin Kayasthas, Agarwals, Assamese Kalitas, Sindhis or, in my case, a Palakkad Iyer.

The local self has to do with religion and caste, but it goes much deeper than that. It has to do with a small patch of ground from which we have descended—be it Kathiawar, Kanpur, Khajuraho or Karwar. It is the reason we Indians use the word “antecedents” in a meaningful way. It is the reason we have very specific idiosyncrasies and unstated enmities. It is also the reason for our deep-seated superiority complex and insecure chip on the shoulder, for each of us believes that the patch of land we sprung from makes us superior and special in some obscure yet salient way. This is true whether you are a Rajput from Marwar, or a Goan from Colvale. You don’t care about the next province, leave alone the next state. Your insecurities and enmities have to do with your neighbours: people who call the same patch of land by that resonant word—home.

The patch of land that I sprang from plays out in my head in this way. Strip away the politeness; strip away the—sincere, genuine, authentic—belief in plurality, the abhorrence of “narrow domestic walls”; strip away the garden-party persona and pour a few dirty martinis. Then stream some Carnatic instrumental music, if possible violinist T.N. Krishnan’s rendition of Nidhi Sala in that “curly-hair” ragam, Kalyani, from your Dynaudio Xeo 6 speakers. Ask me then who I am and I will tell you, somewhat sheepishly, yet bolstered by the music, that I (like T.N. Krishnan) am a Palakkad Iyer. The music is key; also the martinis. Django Reinhardt or Manitas de Plata will not produce the same answer.

Underneath the “we are all one” persona, I am secretly proud of my roots. I was taught to be. Palakkad Iyers make good “cooks, crooks and civil servants”, said former chief election commissioner T.N. Seshan. To that, he could have added musicians because his clan dominates the arts. Actor Vidya Balan; singers Shankar Mahadevan, Usha Uthup, Bombay Sisters, Hariharan and Ranjani-Gayatri: Palakkad Iyers all. My mother “hails” from Tirunellai, a village near Noorani in the Palakkad district.

Palakkad Iyers believe (as do most ethnic groups in India) that we are better than our neighbours. Our women are beautiful and accomplished; our men are fair and charming. We take pride in our food, our character and culture. When Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, who is from the same village as my father, died recently, the entire clan mourned his demise. And yes, we drop names in select circles to prove our superiority. This is why India is united—not because we are tolerant, but because we haven’t been able to prove, definitively and without doubt, that As Palakkad Iyers, my family only cared we are better than our neighbours. about proving its superiority to Iyers from Thanjavur, or those pesky Iyengars. If you were a Bengali or Punjabi, we didn’t have a quarrel with you. We would accord you the courtesy of a guest, but you were as foreign as the man from the moon. Our petty hierarchies and feuding quarrels were limited to the neighbours who occupied our land.

One way in which Palakkad Iyers claimed superiority (to other Iyers, let it be said) was through music. The line of musicians who hailed from Palakkad is long. The other was a belief in the curative powers of coconut oil. A third was an affinity for border-dwellers like us.

People who lived in the areas bordering states were intellectually superior, I was told. This is why Dharwad produced exceptional musicians. Living on the border made you mentally nimble. It forced you to square away [off?] different, and sometimes opposing, constructs. It taught you how to settle into a new home but leave your stamp on it. It taught you to bring Madras to Matunga—actually Palakkad to Matunga, but Madras is a better alliteration.

 

Shoba Narayan’s Tamil when she hangs around her Palakkad cousins is an unrecognizable mishmash of Malayalam, Tamil and a few choice expletives. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Mumbai

Why does Mumbai inspire so much activism, writing, and imagination?

Urbs Primus in Indus: the enduring appeal of Mumbai, India

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Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station in Mumbai. Trains play an important part of daily social life in the Indian city, as do the battered black-and-yellow taxis. Frederic Soltan / Corbis
Primary cause in India’s most enduring city, Mumbai
Shoba Narayan

November 13, 2014 Updated: November 13, 2014 05:24 PM

The best way to enter Mumbai is through its battered black-and-yellow taxis. If you’re lucky, you’ll happen upon a chatty taxi driver who will apprise you of the goings-on in this most populous and wealthiest of Indian cities: the cricketer Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement; the Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan’s third child; the industrialist Mukesh Ambani’s son. India’s edgiest art galleries and theatres are here, as is the second surviving original copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy – under wraps in the Asiatic Library. Mumbai is a city of superlatives that well fits its “Maximum City” moniker, as coined by the author Suketu Mehta. The city has nurtured India’s best-known author, Salman Rushdie; its best orchestra conductor, Zubin Mehta; and the late, great lead singer of Queen – Freddie Mercury, aka Farrokh Balsara, a Parsee boy whose parents were from Mumbai.

I visit Mumbai often. It nearly always overwhelms me. The numbers are mind-boggling: 20 million people contributing 6 per cent of India’s GDP, 33 per cent of its income-tax collections, and 60 per cent of its customs-duty collections. Delhi may be India’s capital and seat of power, but the money that makes the Indian economy churn comes from this slim island that has spread its tentacles deep into the Arabian Sea.

In 1996, the city then known as Bombay divested its colonial but beloved name to revert to Mumbai. Locals use both interchangeably. I like the name Bombay, even though I believe that the name change was a necessary step in India’s emergence from the chrysalis of ­colonialism.

“Bombay is incredibly accommodating towards immigrants,” says Abhay Sardesai, the editor of Art India, as he walks me through the art galleries of Colaba. “It allows individuals to drop anchor and flourish on their own terms.”

“Half the Indians on the Forbes billionaires list live in Bombay,” says a dour cab driver named Shinde. I could have predicted what followed. “You’d think they’d want to do something about the garbage.”

Nearly every Mumbaikar I know has a love-hate relationship with the city. They complain about it constantly, but cannot bear to leave. Naresh Fernandes, the author of City Adrift: A Short Biography of Bombay, is no different. He loathes the housing societies of Malabar Hill that allow only vegetarian residents; bemoans the rising inequality, which he says is so unlike the city of “shared spaces” that he grew up in. But he cannot bear to give up on it. “I have a stake in this city,” he says. “Bombay used to represent a certain egalitarianism, you know. This was the place where you could come and make your fortune.”

From the time it was discovered by Koli fisherfolk who rowed on Arab dhow boats towards Heptanesia or the City of Seven Isles in 1138 and named it after their patron goddess Mumba Devi, Mumbai attracted prospectors, bounty hunters and traders with a nose for opportunity and a stomach for risk. Arab spice traders called one of the islands Al Omani, later corrupted into Old Woman’s Island by the British. The Zoroastrians, or Parsees, originally from Iran, escaped persecution by seeking its shores. When the Englishman Gerald Aungier became Bombay’s governor, he invited Goan Catholics, Bohra Muslims and the Marwari and Sindhi traders to come and grow his city. Mumbai is a city of immigrants – earlier, from foreign shores and, more recently, from other parts of north India. A plaque on the Gateway of India describes its status – both perceived and felt – perfectly: “Urbs Primus in Indus.” The primary city in India.

The city’s geography dictated its history. Its location at the western edge of India, its naturally deep harbour – Bom Bahia, or “beautiful harbour”, as the Portuguese called it – and its narrow width that forced people to live literally on top of each other, have influenced its destiny. The Chinese call this feng shui; the Indians call it vastu shastra. Mumbai’s vastu, its kismet if you will, has to do with maal – goods and their trading, previously textiles; today, pretty much anything money can buy.

There are numerous hotels for tourists to drop anchor into. The Four Seasons, located near the Worli Sea Link, has small rooms but superb service. The flagship hotel of the Taj group – the Taj Mahal Palace – was founded here near the Gateway of India, where the British entered and left India. It was bombed during the 2008 attacks on the city, killing the hotel’s general manager and numerous guests. Today, the renovated hotel welcomes guests once more, albeit after numerous security checks. The Oberoi group, too, has a couple of properties here in Nariman Point, the financial district. Boutique hotels such as Abode, Le Sutra and Bentley also thrive in the hip neighbourhoods of Bandra and Pali Hill.

“Even though the centre of gravity, at least in terms of ­real-estate prices, has moved north, towards Bandra and Khar, south Mumbai still remains vibrant,” says Arvind Sethi, a twice-returned local. South Mumbai is where the ­National Centre for the Performing Arts hosts visiting orchestras; where the Asia Society invites speakers; and where the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival and Literature Live ­occur.

The big change in Mumbai, however, is the flourishing of an “indie culture” in Bandra, Khar and beyond, according to Nayantara Kilachand, the founder of Mumbai Boss, a vibrant website dedicated to local news, views and events. “You’ll find cafes and salons often doubling up as viewing spaces, gigs taking place in offbeat venues and stores that are multipurpose – they’ll host a food market one day and a jazz performance the next,” she says.

Some things, however, remain unchanged. The crowded local trains; the entrepreneurial culture; the 5,000 dabbawallahs who deliver about 200,000 hot packed lunches – come mucky monsoon or stifling summer heat – from homes in the suburbs to office workers in the city. Studied by Harvard Business School, feted by Prince Charles who invited them to his second wedding, the dabbawallahs work perfectly in Mumbai, with its narrow, north-south topography, somewhat akin to Manhattan. Delhi, in comparison, is too spread out. “As long as people are hungry and enjoy their mothers’ cooking, we will be in business,” says one wizened dabbawallah named Telekar, who is eating his own lunch on a train after delivering 300 other meals.

“Ma ya biwi bol,” adds his friend with a knowing grin. Say “mother or wife’s cooking” – it’s more politically correct.

“Why aren’t people depressed in a city like Bombay?” muses the New York transplant Asha Ranganathan, who has instructed her driver to meet her at Churchgate station while she took the “Dadar Fast” (the city’s most popular and populous local train) into town one day. “This city is full of stress. But for Mumbaikars, train rides are like group therapy. We Indians don’t hesitate in saying what is wrong with our lives. We don’t say everything’s fine like the Americans when our lives suck. We ride the trains and share our woes.”

I think of this as I enter Chowpatty Beach with Vijaya Pastala, who sells monofloral honey to luxury hotels and boutiques through her company, Under the Mango Tree. A third generation Mumbaikar with a farm in Alibaug, Pastala meets me for a sunset drink at the pricey Dome lounge atop the ­InterContinental hotel. Then we drive to Chowpatty Beach, where families have gathered for “hawa-khana” (to eat the air). Egalitarian Mumbai is very much in evidence on the beach, as well as in the Wankhede Stadium, where I watch a cricket match with Anand Merchant, a dentist who tends to the rich and famous. One of Merchant’s clients has given him US$150 (Dh551) tickets. “I don’t know what to do,” says Merchant about his bounty of box seats. “I mean, should I stop charging him for teeth cleaning?”

I treat Merchant to dinner at the famous Indigo cafe as a thank you. I invite him to visit Bangalore, my hometown. He demurs. Don’t the bars close in Bangalore at 11.30pm or some such ridiculously early hour, he asked? I nod. “Your city is a morgue, yaar,” he says. “Here, I can party all night and go to Zaffran’s at 4am if I am hungry. What would I do in Bangalore?”

Mumbai too is grappling with many of the problems facing global cities today: astronomical affluence surrounded by abject poverty; a bigger divide among the classes; political tensions wrought by immigrants, between “us” and “them”. The famous Dharavi slum is in the throes of “redevelopment”, a defective strategy according to the urbanologist Matias Echanove. “Bombay should develop incrementally with infrastructure ­retrofitting – like Tokyo has for decades. The government should realise that Dharavi is the solution not the problem.”

Mumbai’s saving grace is its practicality. Its people are not given to hyperbole, unless they’re getting paid for it. A typical Mumbai greeting is “Bol” – literally “talk”. Why waste time with niceties? “Yaar” means friend, but is used universally. “Mamu” or uncle is used both in affection and scorn. In spite of all its contradictions – its ­Parsees-only housing colonies and vegetarian buildings – Mumbai is India’s most cosmopolitan city. It balances the illusion of Bollywood with the gritty realities of its slums; it’s India’s most aspirational city, whetting the appetite of countless workers who commute using the celebrated Mumbai trains. Its people are both irreverent and welcoming, embracing newcomers into the collective fold with gruff practicality. Mumbai contains, as Walt Whitman would say, “multitudes”. It is indeed, Urbs Primus in Indus.

weekend@thenational.ae

The flight Etihad (www.etihad.com) flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Mumbai from Dh1,045 return, including taxes.

The hotel The J W Marriott Hotel Mumbai (www.marriott.com) at Juhu Beach offers double rooms from 12,117 Indian rupees (Dh724) per night, including taxes.

Barcelona

The thing with travel writing is that it takes a long time between travel and the actual publication of the article. Depending on the publication.

Barcelona for Eat Stay Love

STAY – 80-82 Barcelona 2

We picked Barcelona as a vacation destination for the same reason that many families do: great weather, design, architecture, the hub of the global food scene and a non-stop flight from India. Choosing the hotels was trickier. As a travel writer, I wanted to stay in some of the best hotels in the city. Being a vegetarian family, we needed to spend at least part of our stay in an apartment hotel with its own kitchen. And we wanted to be by the ocean for at least part of the time.

Hotel Arts, managed by the Ritz Carlton, fit the bill on all counts. We decided to stay in the apartments on the top floor because they came with a kitchen. We didn’t realize that the architecture and location would make for stunning rooms, or in our case apartment. Designed by the late great architect, David Graham for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics; and in the shadow of the famous “peix” or fish sculpture that Frank Gehry built for the same occasion, the Hotel Arts had aged well and was full of architectural surprises. We got to know the staff even before we got there. My husband wanted tickets to the Copa Del Ray or King’s Cup between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. We peppered the staff with questions about where to buy tickets and would they hold our tickets if it were couriered to them. They did.

What makes a great hotel? Sure, a lot of it is hardware. Nobody wants to come into a lobby with drooping flower arrangements or dodgy showers. Even though luxury hotels don’t like to admit it, small mistakes happen even in the best hotels. What redeems every hotel’s flaws is the way the staff treat the guest. The woman who responded to our emails, Melanie Dorange, was one such. She researched Valencia; held our football tickets; arranged for a rental car; and answered all our insistent, sometimes inconsequential questions. When she learned that my daughter wanted to be a chef, she took us on a guided tour through the kitchens and introduced her to the pastry chef. It is these gestures that make for memory.

Our apartment was fantastic. Spread over two floors, and overlooking the blue sea, it included a spacious living room, study, dining room, kitchen, and two bedrooms upstairs. Light filled the space and created angles and lines in the shadows. We had access to the club floor for sparkling cava or champagne along with snacks and sandwiches throughout the day. Breakfast was in the lawns under Gehry’s fish, with European children doing cartwheels or jumping into the pool.

We were reluctant to leave the Hotel Arts but we wanted to try out a real Barcelona apartment, to see how the locals lived. The Urban Suites came highly recommended on Tripadvisor: two bedrooms, bathrooms, living, kitchen, dining, and best of all, a spacious balcony. We had dinner there surrounded by flickering candles and read books on the lounger under the Catalan sun. The Urban Suites was located near Montjuic hill, where the Olympics were held. It was a great location for shopping, hiking and taking in museums such as the Joan Miro Fondacion. We walked to the local grocery store, manned by Indians (surprise or no surprise); bought manchego cheese, crusty bread, tomatoes, olives, onions and herbs for a great sandwich lunch. We sat in the sun and drank the famed rioja wine and sparkling cava. Round the corner was Barcelona’s most happening nightclub and one night, we joined a long line of teenagers to watch local bands perform. For a family that wants independence without the fuss of staff; that wants to live like the locals at stylish digs; that wants to live in a vibrant neighborhood with great access to public transport, malls, museums and restaurants, The Urban Suites is a good choice.

The Mercer Barcelona is rated amongst the best in the world. The hotel is a revived and refurbished Roman fort in the old Gothic quarter. The red brick fort walls are still visible in the back of the hotel. Our room, a junior suite on the top floor overlooked a beautiful courtyard with orange trees. The scent of orange blossoms delighted our night. At the rooftop terrace, we could sip Bellinis and look over the turrets and cathedrals that dotted this beautiful city. Best of all, we could walk out of the grand swinging door of The Mercer and merge into the narrow lanes and cobblestone streets of the ancient Roman city that has recently spawned the likes of uberchef Ferran Adria and his cohorts who are still cooking up a Catalan storm in the city they cherish.

END